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In Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie, the narrator conceives of art as a reprieve from the grim monotony of reality. Art, in this conception, is a medium that enables one to interpret reality. Tom, the narrator of the play, consciously creates art in an effort to subjectively redefine the present moment, and as a coping mechanism for the troubles in his life.
Tom deals with the tedium of his everyday life by using art as an escape. He single-handedly supports his mother and crippled sister by working a thankless job in a shoe factory. At home, Tom is the provider for the household, but in the factory Tom is little more than a robot. In this stifling environment, Tom’s individuality is reduced to near-absolute anonymity. He has no great motivation or pride in his life, and turns to art to fill his emotional void. Tom’s mother, Amanda, proclaims, “You live in a dream; you manufacture illusions! Where are you going?” (1999) to which Tom answers, “I’m going to the movies” (1999). Rather than stay and face the reality of his life, Tom chooses to go to the theater and live vicariously through the fictional lives of movie characters.
In reality, Tom assembles shoes, used as padding and protection for the feet while traveling from point to point. Yet, to escape the tedium of his life, Tom pads his reality with the dream-like nature of movies. Also, when Amanda asks Tom where he is going, she implicitly questions his direction in life. Tom cannot answer, and only replies that he is going to the movies. He feels that he can push ahead blindly in life as long as these artful illusions pad his feet from the constant painful reminders of reality. Tom exclaims, “Man is by instinct a lover, a hunter, a fighter, and none of those instincts are given much play at the warehouse” (1968). He feels trapped by the overbearing structure of the factory because there is no place there for these so-called instincts romanticized by the media. Tom weaves art into his life to satisfy these instincts, and to redefine his needs and priorities in life.
Tom consciously creates art, since he narrates the play with a subjective approach based on his memory. He describes each event in the play as a scene:
[it is] memory and is therefore unrealistic…it omits some details, others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart…the interior is therefore rather dim and poetic. (1954)
Like a movie director, Tom weaves dramatic touches into his narration; what he presents is a subjective distortion of reality. The audience does not truly know whether or not Tom offers accurate recollections of his history, because the narrator can freely omit and edit any aspect at will. For example, when Amanda shares her experience with gentlemen callers with her children, “Tom motions for music and a spot of light on Amanda. Her eyes lift, her face glows, her voice becomes rich and elegiac” (1956). In Tom’s unique perspective of the event, Amanda despondently longs for her past popularity. She becomes a movie star with a spotlight on her face, her features glow, and she laments her youthful past in a rich, sorrowful voice. However, Amanda’s demeanor may have been entirely different from another individual’s perspective. She could have given the impression of being proud and boastful, belittling her daughter for not achieving the same success in courting gentlemen as she experienced when she was young. Tom conveys his personal perspective by effectively editing and tailoring the confines of reality to his taste. He manipulates qualities of the environment to reflect and focus on superficial character attributes that he deems important. Tom’s utilization of artistic symbolism transforms the intrinsic attributes of his characters, as well.
Tom often employs symbolism in his narration in order to eliminate the distinction between reality and illusory art. When Amanda asks her daughter, Laura, if she has ever liked some boy, “on the dark stage the screen is lighted with the image of blue roses. The music subsides. Laura…is washing and polishing her collection of glass” (1957). Tom directs visual and aural cues to coincide with Laura’s actions, thereby emphasizing certain characteristics of her disposition. By explicitly displaying the symbol of the blue rose as Laura cleans her glass collection, the narrator removes the aspect of realism from his account in favor of abstract complexity and depth, as one sees in art. He distorts Laura’s real identity by juxtaposing her presence with an inanimate object, which he uses to represent her character. Tom utilizes a musical score to accompany his drama as well. This form of aural symbolism adds a dream-like depth and mood to the scene and provides entertainment value for the audience. Tom claims, “I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion” (1953). Tom’s memory, although altered by his subjective perspective and interweaving of artistic symbolism, nonetheless represents the essence of truth in a different form. This art that Tom presents is not an accurate reflection of reality, but rather a study of the social ramifications of the impact and influence of art on personal life and decision-making.
Tom creates art from his memories in response to popular art in the media. The conflict between his reality and the ideals of happiness portrayed in the media cause him to redefine himself to fit this popular standard. Tom mentions that, “In Spain there was revolution. Here there was only shouting and confusion…This is the social background of the play” (1953). The troubles that Tom experiences are not well-defined or publicized. He experiences an internal struggle, rather than an external one with clear-cut sides of good and bad. Tom seeks a life with clearly defined paths and with rewards for valor, like those he sees in movies. As he begins his telling of the memory play, Tom “enters dressed as a merchant sailor…strolls across to the fire-escape…and lights a cigarette” (1953). Based upon this quotation, one speculates that Tom joined the military in search of the romanticized adventures that he witnesses in movies. The time period of this play is post-World War II America, when hundreds of thousands of Americans entered combat in the global arena. However, Tom completely excludes any mention of this possibly traumatic battle experience from his memory. He transforms his life into the very art that impacted him in an attempt to redefine his role in society, but ultimately fails to replicate the movie-inspired romance and adventure that he seeks.
The play that is Tom’s life is nothing like a movie: there is no happy ending. He forsakes his family to escape the tedium of his life, and he continues to struggle internally. He exclaims, “Oh, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me…I reach for a cigarette…I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger – anything that can blow your candles out – for nowadays the world is lit by lightning” (2000). Whether Tom seeks to redefine himself through the fickle illusions of alcohol, drugs, or popular media, his transformation is still an illusion. Only now does he realize that the art he creates is like a candle, which subjectively illuminates only the favorable aspects of life that he wishes to see. Tom describes the world as being lit by lightning, a natural force beyond any man’s grasp. For those few seconds as lightning strikes, the whole world is illuminated, and the inescapable truth is revealed, without prejudice or subjective taint. Although the world plunges back into darkness within moments, the truth of reality remains, and there is no escape.
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